Making a Difference, Joyfully
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London-based activist and author Isabel Losada is convinced that one person can change the world -- and she maps out a ten-step plan in her new book A Beginner's Guide to Changing the World (HarperSanFrancisco).
A Beginner's Guide describes Losada's journey from a casual observer of world affairs to an international human rights activist working in Tibet. Her fast-moving narrative takes us from street protests in London to Losada's meeting with Chinese ambassadors to stunning PR coups that place Tibet in international headlines. The final chapters describe Losada's meeting with the Dalai Lama and their conversation about how individuals can make a difference.
A Beginner's Guide is part-autobiography, part-manifesto that avoids self-indulgent confessions or a preachy tone. It's an entertaining page-turner full of history, travel and romance, comprised of lively interviews with Tibetans, activists, and Chinese officials.
Helping Tibet gain religious autonomy in communist China can be viewed as a hopeless cause. But Losada maps out a realistic plan with small, achievable targets, and through trial-and-error she continues her work against all odds. Despite frequent obstacles and mistakes, she sustains an infectious sense of joy and optimism rarely found in the world of activism.
Losada's book is a great gift for your "questioning" activist-friends -- those types who vent their angry talk, but never walk the walk. It's also an inspiration for wannabe activists who can't afford to fight causes for a living. Losada is a single mom next door, who shops at Safeway, reads Harry Potter, and turns into a committed, part-time activist. "A Beginners Guide" is a courageous journey from hopeless anger to positive action.
Losada talked to AlterNet about her recent meeting with the Dalai Lama, her tips on being an effective activist, and her secrets to staying joyful while fighting injustices.
Could you tell us why you chose Tibet as your cause?
I've always been interested in the spiritual and alternative worlds. My first book was about why women become nuns today in the Church of England. And then my second book was about happiness and changing of self. And then having done that, I wanted to look at making a difference in the world, to explore the question of what can one person do to make a difference. And while we're in the middle of fighting terrorism in the world, the person who most people perceive as the world's leading proponent of non-violence and peace, is His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I thought, rather than fighting something we don't want, why aren't we rewarding and supporting what we do want. Which is a voice saying that we must be actively non-violent. We must fight causes. We must fight, but without violence. We must promote negotiated settlements, people talking to each other. Obviously, if world governments solved disputes by negotiations, then American soldiers wouldn't need to be dying in Iraq and Afghanistan today.
You mentioned that non-violence isn't much respected today. It's seen as weak not to fight back. Why do you think that is?
Yes, it's seen as weak not to fight back because pacifism and non-violence is misunderstood. It's understood to mean not doing anything. But if you have watched the amazing film by Richard Attenborough, Gandhi, there is a scene that demonstrates wonderfully what active resistance means, which is taking action, always taking action, always resisting an evil system, but not violently. So there's a scene when the Indians are wanting to resist the rule of the British in India, and Gandhi encourages them to strike. The British go in there and they're hitting the Indians over the head with truncheons, and being very violent. But Gandhi said, "Whatever they do to you, don't hit back." Because then you're showing great courage because you have the moral high ground. So you're taking action but you're not hitting back. And that in fact is the action which all the great spiritual leaders in the world talk about, be it Buddah, be it Christ. You resist but you don't shoot somebody. ... The message that is currently going into our grandchildrens' history books is if you follow the non-violent path you get ignored; if you plant a bomb and kill people then you make the front page of the newspaper.
I think one of the most powerful parts of the book is your conversation with the Dalai Lama, when he actually explains how to apply the meaning of the serenity prayer in your life, how to know what one person can and can't do to make a difference in the world. Can you talk about that?
Well, I have a map to this question of what can one person do to make a difference in the world, or to a problem that may seem insoluble. I take the old serenity prayer: 'Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.' So having been working my way through making a difference to this cause, I finally write at the end of the book, about wisdom, and how we can have the wisdom to know the difference between what we can change and what we can't.
I arrived to meet with the Dalai Lama very nervous, reduced into a stammering wreck, worrying about whether I'm wearing the right jacket or not or whether my tape recorder is working or not. And in a very long, rambling way, I say "So, your holiness, um ... so how can we begin to know the difference between, um ... what we need to find serenity to accept and what we could possibly begin to change and what is wisdom ... and how can we have wisdom to know the difference." So I gave him this very long question that went on and on and on. And he finally leaned over and he said to me, "Experiment." So on the face of it, that's it. You experiment, you take action, and you see what works and what doesn't work. You find out by taking action. And then for wisdom, what is wisdom, and how do we have wisdom to know the best course of action, he said, "think deeper."
There are so many causes, and we all have rent or a mortgage to pay. How do we know which causes to choose?
Yes, we all have our mortgages to pay. And I don't think it's that people don't want to make a difference in the world. I think that they do want to make a difference in the world, but they don't know where to begin. So here, exclusively on the AlterNet's website, without a $50,000 cost on how to change your life, is Isabel Losada's exclusive tip on how to make a difference in the world:
Either find in your home or purchase a large storage cupboard. In that space, put away your television set. And only take out your television set for very special occasions, events of international importance. That's it.
Step two is to find a cause that you feel passionate about and that will give you joy to be involved in. Joy is the most important thing. Because if it doesn't give you joy, then A) you're not going to stick at it, B) you're not going to be fun to work with, and C) you're not really likely to be effective. It has to give you joy to make a difference in this world even if it's very, very difficult. And the more agonizing the cause, the more that needs to be true. If you're dealing with torture victims, if you're dealing with children with AIDS in your community, the more terrible the cause, the more you need to be a source of joy within it.
The third tip is you need to find a way of linking what you do in your life with what you might want to make a difference to. Otherwise you will be pulled in two directions. And you can't have the things you're trying to make a difference to pulling you away from paying your rent. You have to bring the two together. Three simple examples: A nurse I know who was traveling in Africa and found a very run down hospital went in to visit it and decided to make a difference to that hospital and managed to make a twinning between her hospital in Britain and this hospital in Africa. So she was able to raise funds, buy equipment, bring staff from the African hospital to train in Britain. Relationships were formed.
Another friend who's a builder wanted to build his first ever ecologically sound house. But he couldn't afford to do it in Britain, because it's a big spend. He was able to do it in Romania, and then give it to a local playgroup.
And then I've done it as a writer. I've been working on a book for a year ... and have been working as an advocate for the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan cause. So that's how I've brought the two together. So whatever it is that you specialize in, you need to bring that alongside whatever it is that you want to support. Throw in joy, and then it works.
The unique side of your book is that it's one of the first activist autobiographies that I've read where there's a lot of joy, humor, and hope. Can you talk about how you keep that alive when you come across challenging obstacles and when often times the results of your work are not very tangible and there are not that many rewards. How do you keep that joy and positive attitude alive?
When I give a live talk to an audience, I say to them, "this is a genuine sentence that the Dalai Lama has said.â€ Many things are reported to be the Dalai Lama and are not him, but this is, I've checked. He says, "The purpose of life is ... " The answer is one word and I have the audience guess what the word is. It's very interesting. They say, "kindness," they say "compassion," they say "love," some say "enlightenment," some say "learning," some say "life itself," one person said "death," which is a very Buddhist kind of a profound answer. The answer is happiness. The purpose of life is happiness. My previous book was about happiness, and I think that has to be our starting point. It's the most joyful way to live life, it's the most effective way to live life, and I think it's the best reward.
And is it up to us to find what makes us happy?
Yes. This is why in a sense "A Beginner's Guide to Changing the World" is book two, because it's about making a difference in the world. But basically, in two short lines, when I give my talk I say you have to forgive everybody. Basically, your parents, because they didn't do the perfect job, and you have to have unconditional love for everybody, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And the Buddhists add that the people who cause us the most difficulty are our precious pearls, because they give us the most opportunity to learn compassion. So once you have that, a philosophy of unconditional love for everybody, 24/7, and joy, then you can move forward.
Now it seems to me that your question has a second part, which is how do you avoid becoming discouraged when your efforts appear to not be producing tangible results. The way you do that is that you have the old-fashioned achievable targets, which may be small ones, but things that you know that can be achieved.
I could say to myself, well I've failed, because the Dalai Lama is not back in Tibet yet. Or I could say I know because I'm fortunate enough to get replies from the readers of my book that they've decided to sponsor the education of Tibetan children, they've decided to go to Tibet as volunteers, they've decided to teach in India and as volunteers, there has just been a fantastically diverse selection of actions that have been taken. And those things all make a difference. So, in the world of making a positive difference, it's a bit like learning a language: You can either look at the enormous difficulty of the problem, and you can say, "I'm never going to learn it because it's going to take 10 years to speak this language properly." Or you can look all the time at what you're learning, and put your focus on what you've already achieved.
What advice do you have for Western organizations and activists, who want to support international causes?
My current preference for any form of campaigning organization, which is based on Buddhist principals, is positive action. Take positive action. And wherever possible, be for things rather than against things. So I think the old activist model is complaining that this company is exploiting this, or complaining that these people are doing this badly, demonstrating, being angry. And personally, that's not the way that I like to work. I like to be "for" things. So I don't consider myself anti-China at all. On the contrary, I think it would be in China's best interest to give to Tibet genuine autonomy, and to encourage the Dalai Lama to come back into Tibet. Hundreds of thousands of Tibetans would follow him, and China would hold parties and celebrate the reunification of the motherland as they see it. And China's position in the world would be greatly improved in terms of the way that China is perceived. So I believe that I'm pro-China. It's not anti-anything.
Do you see any hope for Tibet gaining autonomy?
What has been going on has not been negotiations but what has been called talks about talks. ... But I'm not really in the loop about what's going on. My position is always to look at what individuals can do.
So I tend not to worry too much about things that are outside my range. I would focus on where I can make a difference and where anybody I'm talking to can make a difference. In that respect, I do believe that we'll have genuine autonomy. I very much hope and pray that the Dalai Lama will be back in Tibet in his lifetime.
Why would that be a good thing for China to do?
At the very time when America and Britain are perceived as aggressors by many countries, China would be the country that would be rewarding the non-violent path. It would be enormously beneficial to China's international standing if they had the Dalai Lama back in their country. And the Dalai Lama is happy for Tibet to be a part of China. He stopped asking for total independence many years ago. But he does want genuine religious, spiritual freedom for his people.
Kristina Rizga is an associate editor at AlterNet. She edits WireTap, AlterNetâ€™s youth-oriented section.